The King James Bible and the English Language

See Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (Oxford University Press,2010)

By David Crystal
Honorary Professor
Bangor University, Wales
December 2010

In 2004, in Chapter 11 of my The Stories of English, I wrote this:

The King James Bible - either directly, from its own translators, or indirectly, as a glass through which we can see its predecessors - has contributed far more to English in the way of idiomatic or quasi-proverbial expressions than any other literary source.

But just how many expressions, exactly? Like everyone else who has written on the influence of the King James Bible on the English language, I had listed a few dozen examples - out of the mouths of babes, how are the mighty fallen, fly in the ointment, and so on - but I had no clear sense of just how many such items there were in the Bible as a whole. Nor, it seems, had anyone else. And when I asked people how many idioms like these they thought appeared in the Bible, I received answers ranging from a hundred to a thousand.

It was time to do a proper count. But that would mean reading the whole Bible through, from beginning to end, and such a challenge needs special motivation. This was provided by the year 2011, the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, and by Oxford University Press, who wished to capture the moment by a series of new publications - notably, Gordon Campbell's quarter centenary edition and his accompanying historical account of the work's compilation and later publishing history. So I read the whole work, looking out for any phrase that I felt had come to be a part of modern English, whether people were aware of the biblical connection or not. My book Begat: the King James Bible and the English language (2010), reported the result.

I made two discoveries. First, there are not as many expressions as some people think. In fact, I found only 257. Of course, there is no magic in this figure. It's perfectly possible that another reader, with a different set of linguistic intuitions, might make a different judgment about what counts as an idiom - in which case the total might rise a little. But not by much. And second, most of the idioms do not originate in the King James translation at all. Rather they are to be found in Tyndale's translation nearly a century earlier, or the Bishops' Bible of 1568 (in the 1602 edition used by the King James translators), or Wycliffe's translation (the first into English, in 1388), or one of the other major versions of the 16th century. By my count, only 18 expressions are stylistically unique to the King James Bible:

east of Eden

know for a certainty

how are the mighty fallen

a still small voice

the root of the matter

to every thing there is a season

much study is a weariness of the flesh

beat their swords into plowshares

set thine [your] house in order

be horribly afraid

lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven

get thee behind me

suffer little children

no small stir

turned the world upside down

a thorn in the flesh

unto the pure all things are pure

let us now praise famous men

Every other idiomatic expression is shared with at least one of the earlier translations I examined: Wycliffe, Tyndale, Geneva, Bishops, and Douai-Rheims. In many cases, an idiom is found in all of them - such as milk and honey or salt of the earth.

It's important to appreciate that my survey made a clear distinction between an idiom and a quotation. If a biblical expression has genuinely entered idiomatic English, we will expect to find it in the everyday speech or writing of native-speakers who are only nominally religious, or who have no religious belief at all. It will be used outside a religious frame of reference, often with a change in meaning from its original biblical sense, and will be found frequently adapted to express a special (often playful) effect. Quotations, by contrast, are expressions which are used only in settings where the religious application is relevant, maintaining their original biblical sense, and sticking closely to the translator’s language. A clear example of a verse which has resulted in a common idiom is Matthew 15.14:

       Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.

       A clear example of a verse which is known only as a quotation (especially at Christmas time) is Matthew 1.23:

       Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

The distinction works well enough, but there will always be a few cases which fall between these two types, attracting a certain amount of playful adaptation. “Give us this day our daily blog,” for example, headed a 2010 report about the Pope's wish for the Catholic Church to have more online presence. Does this mean that “Give us this day our daily X” has become an idiom in English? I've found very few other examples of it, and all have been in a clearly religious context. And that's the important point. Real idioms, like fly in the ointment, are used thousands of times every day without any reference to a religious context at all.

A figure of 250 or so means that we must not exaggerate the influence of the King James Bible on the English language. I was right to say, in my quotation above, that no other literary source has matched this version for the number of influential expressions that it contains. Not even Shakespeare coined or popularized so many idioms. But the exaggerations are widespread and seem to be growing as 2011 approaches. In an article in The Tablet (3 April 2010) called “England's Gift to the World,” MP Frank Field (the director of the 2011 Trust established to coordinate the anniversary celebrations) quoted Melvyn Bragg to say that the King James Bible is “quite simply the DNA of the English language.” A striking metaphor, but a hugely misleading one. DNA is in every cell we possess; but the KJB is by no means in every word we write.

Only a limited number of King James phrases have entered the language. And there are actually many features of its style that are no longer used or liked in English. Not used? Consider a sentence such as “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,” where much of the grammar is obsolete. Not liked? I suspect that many readers of this essay were taught in school that it was “bad grammar” to begin a sentence with And. But what do we find in the opening Chapter of Genesis? Thirty-one verses. All but two of them begin with And – “And God said... And God made....” Only the opening verse (“In the beginning God created the heaven and earth”) and verse 27 (“So God created...”) do anything different.

There are, of course, other ways in which we might discuss the notion of KJB “influence,” such as its thematic content, imagery, and rhythmical style. These are difficult to quantify, but it's plain that, as churches in the first half of the 17th century gradually replaced their Bishops' Bibles with the new version, writers began to use the KJB as a source of inspiration. Milton was one of the earliest; many of his lines show a clear influence, at times to the point of exact phrasing, as in “She gave me of the tree, and I did eat” (Paradise Lost, Book X). The King James version also entered auditory consciousness too, for it was frequently read aloud - a practice aided by the punctuation, which is more of an aid to speech than a guide to grammar. There's no question that the content of the Bible has had a huge influence on the imaginations of poets, novelists, and dramatists. I didn't explore that, which is more a subject for literary critics than linguists. I was looking only at KJB idioms.

The relatively small total of 257 shouldn't surprise anyone. We need to recall that the aim of the translators, as they say in their Preface, was not to make a new translation, “but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.” They had little choice in the matter, as the guidelines for their work, which had been approved by the King, required them to use the Bishops' Bible (in the 1602 edition) as their first model, making as few alterations as possible; and, when this was found wanting, they could refer to earlier versions. Unlike Shakespeare, they were not great innovators. However, that total does mean that we mustn't exaggerate the influence of the KJB on English. It's true to say, as several commentators do, that no other literary source has matched this edition for the number of influential idioms that it contains; but it isn't true to say that the KJB originated all of them. Rather, what it did was popularize them. It gave the idioms a widespread public presence since the work was “appointed to be read in Churches.” The work was never “authorized” (despite its popular name) in any legal sense, but no other translation reached so many people over so long a period as the KJB.

The result was that an unprecedented number of biblical idioms captured the public imagination, so much so that it's now impossible to find an area of contemporary expression that doesn't from time to time use them, either literally or playfully. We find them appearing in such disparate worlds as nuclear physics, court cases, TV sitcoms, recipe books, punk rock lyrics, and video games, and being adapted in all kinds of imaginative ways to suit their new settings. The banking crisis produced Am I my Lehman Brothers' keeper? A political confrontation produced Bush is the fly in Blair's ointment. No other work has generated so many variations. The adaptations are legion. Seek sources on the Internet, as I did, and you will easily find them. In this sense, the influence of the KJB is without parallel.

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